The end came for Tubby Smith today, but I can’t help but think of the beginning, that glorious spring morning when we all learned that a national championship winning coach was riding in on a Lear Jet to save the program, create a national brand, and win a Big Ten Title. At least that is how it was supposed to work. Tubby Smith won that first press conference. As the years went on, he didn’t win enough press conferences or enough games. Either type of wins would have bought him a few more years, but those never came.
Minnesotans, by their nature, are suspicious of outsiders. It is a cultural artifact left over from bad times in the home countries and the dark and desolate nights on the prairies. We got by on our own because we had to get by on our own. Too often the only thing we hate more than our own shortcomings is knowing that an outsider recognizes our shortcomings. Tubby Smith always was that outsider.
The college basketball world changed during the Dan Monson Era. While we turned away from the team and college basketball in general, the facilities race began. Tubby Smith knew this because he benefited from it. He had a giant arena, a giant practice facility, and a giant budget at his disposal. He knew that a fancy new practice facility or a shiny new arena didn’t win games by themselves, but they did help bring in the players that win games. And he said as much. He had the audacity to point out that when recruits see The Barn, they aren’t blown away. When they see don’t see a practice facility, it can blow them towards other programs. He hadn’t yet seen The Barn in a raucous fervor, and suggesting it be put out to pasture amounted to blasphemy. His suggestion to build a practice facility was met with derision that still percolates on twitter every time a player misses a free-throw or a lay-up. Who was he, an outsider, to tell us what we need? Coaching changes have not gone well at Minnesota in football or basketball. Basketball coaches seem to cheat or fail, and the football coaches worth keeping always seem to be trying to get out. It is easy to understand why Gopher fans in both sports become suspicious. They have been burned too many times to trust anyone. They certainly weren’t going to trust an outsider whose hire seemed too good to be true.
Coach Smith never seemed to understand that public relations were part of the job. He never understood how damaging it could be to criticize The Barn, the only part of Gopher basketball that survived unscathed through the years. He never understood that he was too honest answering questions about player performance and never honest enough about the rumors that swirled every off-season linking him to every conceivable open job. He had no intention of leaving, but those words never came out of his mouth.
Winning fixes everything, and he ultimately never won enough. For a coach that was supposed to transform the program and bring unparalleled success, his teams were never better than alright. Fans expected Big Ten Championships, and his team never managed to even win the NIT. There were plenty of extenuating circumstances. Injuries and departures ruined plenty of promising seasons. Fans grew restless, and the higher-ups in the athletic department did too, but they gave Coach Smith one more chance, and that was this season. The excuses were gone, but slow starts and blown leads weren’t. There was another late season swoon, this time with a full a roster. Tubby tried everything he knew, from playing slow to playing fast to every conceivable combination of players on the court. The results were the same, which ultimately led to his dismissal.
The Golden Gopher basketball program is once again at a crossroads, but in much better position than it was on that spring morning when Tubby Smith flew into town. Because of that, his time here can not be considered a failure. Now it is Norwood Teague’s job to find a new coach who can win more games, and enough press conferences to convince us he wants to be one of us.